On booksprints, responsible data in development, and diversity

13 October 2014

Responsible Data Book Sprint

Last week, I took part in a 'booksprint', which involved bringing together a group of people from different disciplines, to collaboratively write a book from start to finish in just three days.

It was my second booksprint - the first being this, "How to Read and Understand an Oil Contract", which I coordinated logistics for, and participated in as target reader - but my first as a fully-fledged writer. It was a brilliant experience, for a number of reasons - some obvious, some less so.

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Courage - it's (still) not just for white men

22 September 2014

I woke up this morning to see this post by Jillian York, “Courage – it’s not just for white men”. Suffice to say, I wholeheartedly agree with it, especially the idea of remixing that wholly reductive image released by Pirate Parties International.

As Jillian mentions, there are a whole host of women and people of colour that didn’t appear on the remixed version she produced; so, here’s another, with the people who came to mind for me.

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The road to hell is paved with brightly coloured bubble maps

18 September 2014

Across the global development sector, the idea of opening up data and becoming more transparent is taking hold. One might even say that it has become reasonably well established; almost every week, new data portals commissioned by global development organisations are appearing.

Undoubtedly, this move towards transparency and open data is, in theory, a positive development. Responsibly sharing data on global development projects is potentially, a crucial step towards more effective international development projects, both in terms of more efficient development programming on the side of the practitioner, and in terms of increasing accountability for citizens affected by projects.

So surely the flourishing online data portals are a good thing?

Not entirely. While the intentions are undoubtedly good, the results are often much less so.

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Nerdy presents: building a 'congratulations' site

12 September 2014

A couple of weeks ago, one of my best friends handed in her PhD, in geology, and the TLD .rocks went on sale. Clearly this was a sign, so I bought her what has to be the best domain for a geologist named Sorcha to own: http://sorcha.rocks.

I built her a little present on the site, too – a memory game, with photos she took during the PhD, and the place names, meaning that she's basically the only one who will recognise the pictures and be able to do it really from memory. Once the game has been completed successfully, a 'to do list' appears at the bottom of the page, so it's hidden to most viewers.

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Weddings without the gender bias; very much possible, and wonderful!

31 August 2014


Yesterday, I went to a fantastic wedding. It was truly wonderful for a number of personal reasons, given that it was my brother's wedding (!) – but it was also, for me, a great example of how an old-fashioned institution like marriage can be brought into the 21st century, and celebrated without gender-bias.

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Feminist science fiction - on the radio!

27 August 2014

On Monday, I co-presented a short show on Berlin Community Radio, with my friend Kate McCurdy, on a topic that has been fascinating us for a little while now – feminist science fiction. We looked at a few key pieces of science fiction from as far back as 1905, with a short reading from Sultana's Dream, another reading of Ursula K. LeGuin's The Left Hand of Darkness (one of our favourite pieces!), and talked briefly about Afrofuturism, too. We were joined by April who provided us with some awesome spacey tunes.

We did a fair bit of research for the show, which I've arranged below into an article, with links to works we mentioned– we said much of what is written below in the radio show though, which you can listen to online here. Suggestions for future radio show segments are welcome, as are recommendations of other feminist science fiction books to read! 

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The cultural wonders of immigration: 3 generations, 3 mother tongues, and a lot of cultural differences

10 August 2014


[Image credit: an amazing visualisation on migration flows, on http://global-migration.info]

In a couple of weeks, my brother is getting married. This is a hugely exciting event in my family, and family members are coming from all around the world to attend the wedding(s) – they're having the actual wedding in Devon, and then a 'reception' up where my parents live, in Manchester.

Party details aside, I don't think I'll have ever seen so many of my family members gathering in one place before; though we still have lots of family in Bangladesh, we've all travelled a lot. It's made me think a lot about the various cultures that are encompassed within our extended family – within just a couple of generations, we've put roots down all across the world, and that has brought with it some interesting changes in cultural values among us.

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Be more than a passive ally

03 August 2014

A few weeks ago, someone asked me at a party, “Where do you come from?” and then second-guessed my answer, asking “No no, I mean where do you come from, originally?” This isn't anything new, sadly, but what happened afterwards surprised me.

Someone I didn't know very well interrupted my interrogator, with

“You know, that question is racist.”

I was speechless. A white German man, who I'd never really spoken to, was saying almost exactly what I was about to say. The conversation continued, with protests from the man asking the questions, and the man who interrupted him explaining clearly and firmly why asking different questions to different people based on their skin colour, as well as not accepting their answer, is racist.

It was wonderful.

Having those conversations, explaining to someone why what they're saying or doing is discriminatory, is incredibly tiring. Sometimes I don't even bother; I just answer the question, then walk away, but I always feel a twinge of almost guilt, knowing that they'll likely just go ahead and continue their behaviour as is.

But then again, it's not my responsibility to explain the world and its migration flows to them... so whose is it? When someone else – and especially, someone who has likely never been asked that question in his entire life in Germany – decided to step in and help explain, it was incredibly welcome and (sadly) a huge surprise.

It's all very well not engaging in discriminatory practices yourself, or having an increased self-awareness of what you and those around you are doing; but going that step further, and actually speaking out, is much more than many people actually bother doing. Naturally, it's part of the privilege bestowed upon sections of society that we/they can actually ignore discrimination to the level of never having to engage with it; that, however, is not making it go away for the rest of society.

Perhaps there's the worry of 'mansplaining' or speaking over others, but (and obviously, I can only speak for myself here) – knowing that there are active allies who I can turn to in those cases is really so reassuring. People who would not just stand by me while I get into an argument with someone over what is considered racist or not, but those who would actually join the argument rather than watching from the sidelines.

If you're really, truly, wanting to use your position of privilege, wherever it may lie, then stop being a passive observer of discrimination around you, and actually do something about it. Say something. Explain why. If it's purely a case of ignorance on their part, then it's your responsibility to educate them just as much as it is anyone else's.

PS. There are ways of doing this that are considerate and understanding, but also get the point across – Willow's blog on this topic addresses some of these points really well. 

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Unexpected coding errors: how to find the answer?

03 August 2014

This week, after a couple of months break, I returned to adding things to my project website. I've written before about the things I've learned en route to building that site (the most comprehensive round up being this post, “Newbie hacking coding tips”) but there are a few other things that came to mind during this week's foray.

Namely: what to do when you get stuck, or something doesn't work? I've written before that it's important to try and use your own logic before asking for help, and to try and follow trails as much as you can, but that's still a little vague. So, here's a summary of things I've learned to do when things break, or don't work quite as I expected.

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Three years in Berlin: on moving abroad, the city, and what I've learned

13 July 2014

This week is my three year anniversary of moving to Berlin (my three-year-Berliniversary, if you will.) Here are a few things I've learned along the way – about myself, about moving abroad, and about Berlin.


Moving abroad is hard. That romanticised idea of moving to a new country, immediately surrounded by interesting people, with a social calendar brimming with exciting new possibilities, expanding your horizons and learning new things is a world away from the reality. The vulnerability of being completely and utterly alone in a country where you don't speak the language, and have never been before; the unfamiliar idiosyncrasies of a culture you know nothing about; not knowing where to go for even the very basics.

I remember getting to the supermarket when I first got here, and wanting to buy some double cream (I was planning on baking a cake for my new office – a superficial but effective way of getting them to talk to me.) I was faced with a whole array of similar looking substances – Schmand, Sahne, Sahne zum Kochen, Saure Sahne, Schlagsahne... I didn't have a dictionary with me, and ended up purchasing the whole range, to the amusement of the cashier, only to discover that not one of them was actually what I was looking for. Silly, but it was oddly disempowering to realise that I couldn't even go to the supermarket without assistance.

Having to make friends from scratch was also difficult – similar to starting at a new school, only you're the only new one, and there's no teacher to introduce you, or defined space in which you'll meet those people. Instead, the whole city is your school playground, and you have to create your own potential-friend-meeting opportunities, while working, and settling in, and getting used to the new environment. For me, a couple of people played a key role in my settling in – friends who invited me to things, and didn't mind me tagging along, asking silly questions, and generally being my 'go-to' for advice, and weekend activities. I'm certain I wouldn't have stayed in Berlin for as long as I have if it weren't for their kindness.

I'm so glad I learned (and am still learning) German. Yes, it's entirely possible to live in Berlin while knowing only the very basics, there's no denying that – but it makes a world of difference to be able to converse with people and to understand the culture. On a practical level, I found it so embarrassing to be sitting with a group of German people and have to ask them to all speak a foreign language, just for me, while we were sitting in Germany. And, I've found at least, people are much friendlier knowing that you've put effort in to learn the language, even if you (like me) make silly mistakes on a regular basis. There's no better ice-breaker than a ridiculous misuse or misunderstanding of a basic sentence or phrase. As a friend put it – just accept that you're going to get (at least) the grammar wrong, and speak.

I like being put out of my comfort zone. It's true that Germany's not so different to other countries I've lived in – the UK, France, Spain – but it's different enough for me to feel not quite at ease in many situations. I realised last year that this is something that I actually relish; it makes me pay more attention to what's going on and notice things I might otherwise have let slip by me. It's almost like a set of mini challenges that crop up again and again, always slightly different, a little confusing, and satisfying once they're dealt with.

I also notice things here that wouldn't happen in other places. The reverence for people with academic qualifications, the unwillingness to show any sort of national pride except for during international football tournaments, the cliched but accurate directness and consequently thick skin, the relaxed and unhurried attitude towards studying here in Berlin, the idea of renting apartments for years on end rather than buying... it goes on and on, and I find it fascinating.

It's made me notice the opposite, too – things that are very particular to the British. The 'pleases' and 'thank-yous', the long winded way of getting to what you actually want to say, the idea of wearing uniforms in school, the sport netball, the drink Ribena (or any sort of fruit cordial), the strange tradition of Guy Fawkes night, of Pancake Day, accepting other cultures' culinary traditions as our own, of finishing university and settling down and buying a house as if it's all a race... and so on, and so on.

Berlin has so many possibilities, it can be overwhelming. It's cheap, and fun, and you can probably find any meet up, class, or community that you want to. But sometimes, so much choice is almost too much choice – it can be difficult to know where to start, and how to stick to things. In the time I've been here, I've taken a swing dancing course, joined (and left) a folksy band, joined a yoga class, taken a meditation class, started Arabic classes, attended coding workshops, danced in a music video, learned to rollerblade, joined discussion groups, started learning the djembe... and more.

It's a complete luxury problem, but there's so much to find and to do here that actually sticking to something can be harder than it sounds. This somewhat hedonistic attitude can be seen in the way people organise their time, too. Nothing planned too much in advance, leaving flexibility in case something better comes up, with a lack of punctuality I never would've expected in Germany.

Berlin's nowhere near as multicultural as you think, or as (white) people here will describe it. From everyday micro-aggressions to the implicit understanding among many German people that even third generation Turkish immigrants who've grown up their whole lives here shouldn't be able to consider themselves as 'German', as well as the very select groups of immigrants and cultures that Berlin contains – it's not a patch on London's rich cultural setting, and I haven't stopped correcting people lauding 'multi-kulti Berlin' since I arrived.

I don't miss the UK, but I miss the people. There's nothing particularly about the UK that I ever get cravings for, but it's hard sometimes being far away from friends and family. Messaging apps like Whatsapp and Skype make this so, so much easier – I sometimes wonder if I would've stayed as long if it weren't for them. It's also a strange feeling going back to the UK and not understanding jokes, or references to TV programmes I've never seen, and getting a kind of reverse culture shock. The UK and Germany aren't so different, but in some respects my lifestyle here in Berlin is a far cry from that of my friends in London.

Sometimes, not making a decision is the decision in itself. I always imagined there would be a point at which I'd decide to really stay in Berlin, or at which I'd go back to England. I came here originally for 6 weeks, with a suitcase of summer clothes and a house to go back to in London, without any big goodbye to the UK or my friends and family there. A job came up, and I decided to stay for a year, and defer my masters. Then, another year, and I found a nicer apartment to feel more at home. Now, it's three years, and that 'decision point' simply hasn't happened... and somehow, I'm settled and happy and it's hard to think where else I'd be able to have the same quality of life for the same price.

All that said, three years after my non-decision to move here, it's incredibly satisfying to think that I've gotten through the settling-in pains, and made my own way here. Of course, there are cities where it's far more difficult to settle into, and actually I'd say that Berlin is one of the easiest cities to live in that I've visited. To friends who've moved from their homes, to university, to a city with lots of their friends in, I've not stopped recommending that they get out of that comfortable bubble, and experience a new country – if only for a few months, just to expand their horizons, see how they cope with it themselves, and experience something new. I wouldn't take back a second of my time here, despite the ups and downs!  


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